Saturday 24 June 2017

Dublin to Wexford: Life off the fast lane

Photo: Ronan Lang
Photo: Ronan Lang
Vale of Avoca. Photo: Ronan Lang
Kilmacurragh Arboretum. Photo: Ronan Lang
Enniscorthy lies along the M/N11 in Co Wexford. Photo: Ronan Lang
The Happy Pear, Greystones. Photo: Ronan Lang

Pol O'Conghaile

In the third part of the series exploring the hidden treasures around our new motorways, Pol O'Conghaile has 10 fabulous detours from the M11. Photography: Ronan Lang

The route

The M/N11 is the main driving route from Dublin to Wexford. The route varies between motorway, and dual and single-lane carriageways. The motorway sections include a link with the M50 that bypasses Shankill and Bray, and a 14km stretch bypassing Ashford, Rathnew and Wicklow.

Next up for completion is 30km of new motorway from the Gorey bypass to Scurlockbush (bypassing Enniscorthy) and a 16km section of dual carriageway linking the Arklow and Wicklow bypasses; both due for completion between 2013 and 2015.

The tolls

There are currently no tolls on the M/N11.

The COUNTIES

The M/N11 passes through Dublin, Wicklow and Wexford.

The SPEED LIMITS

There's a 120km/h limit on the M11. The N11 limit is 100km/h.

The MUST-SEES

Glendalough, the Wicklow Mountains, the Vale of Avoca, Courtown, Vinegar Hill and the heritage town of Enniscorthy are all accessible from the M/N11. Visit discoverireland.ie for more activities along the route.

The lunch break

If you like chirpy service, funky tunes and snap-fresh salads, then it's time you made a date with the Happy Pear. Steven and David Flynn's vegetable market, juice bar and café is by now a Greystones institution, with hordes of yummy mummies, evergreen regulars and hikers off the Bray-Greystones cliff walk all mingling in front of the orange livery.

I order a plate of vegetable moussaka with puy lentils and vine-ripened tomatoes. It's a hefty, nourishing dish, to which I add two cracking salads: one with mung beans, ginger and sugar-snap peas; the other with chickpeas and coriander. I'm charged €9.50 for the lot.

The sea air brushes past my pavement table and I can see the Little Sugarloaf in the distance. The Happy Pear does what it says on the tin. Hilary Swank and Lisa Kudrow ate here recently while filming in Wicklow.

Details: Exit the N11 at Kilpedder, taking the R774 for 6km (4 miles) into Greystones. The Happy Pear (01-287 3655; thehappypear.ie) opens until 6pm daily.

A stop to stretch the legs

Brittas Bay is one of the best-loved beaches on the east coast, and it's easy to see why.

Pulling into its large car park and schlepping a short distance through the dunes, I'm greeted by a sickle-shaped strand stretching 5km (three miles) long.

Strollers, swimmers and even a couple of kayakers have been making the most of the sunshine (if you plan to walk, make for the firmer sand near the waterline).

The windfarm off the Arklow coast is a blot on the horizon, but the sand glows like gold.

Details: Exit the N11 at Jack White's pub (between Wicklow and Arklow); following the signs for 3km (1.8 miles) towards Brittas Bay. Lifeguards are on duty from 11am to 7pm.

A stop for the kids

Kilmacurragh Arboretum is looking dandy these days, with fresh mulching, granite paving and a newly surfaced car park leading to one of the nicest gardens in the Garden County. Famous for its conifers and calcifuges, it is free to visit too, with guided tours daily at 12pm and 3pm.

"What's the catch?" I asked a friend recently. "You pay taxes," he replied. Kids will love Kilmacurragh for the sprawling Cyprus tree directly in front of the derelict old house. Part its leaves and you step inside a shadowy wonderland of climbing branches, animal burrows and secret passageways.

The avenue of Irish yews and rhododendrons behind the ruins is one of the sweetest you'll find to stroll in the county.

Details: Turn off the M/N11 at the Beehive Pub (between Wicklow and Arklow). Kilmacurragh (0404 48844; botanicgardens.ie) is 3km (1.8 miles) off the main road.

The scenic detour

The M11 slices between Wicklow Mountains National Park and the Leinster coastline, with either making for a good detour.

It's a cracking day so I opt for the mountains, turning off at Kilmacanogue and driving through a gorse and heather-strewn landscape towards one of Ireland's knockout views -- that of Lough Tay from the R759 (main picture, left).

You don't have to be a walker to get the best out of this one.

Stash the car by the side of the road, hop over the ditch and there it is -- a glistening bowl of peaty-brown water, lapping against a startlingly white beach on the Guinness Estate (the sand was apparently imported by the owners), and framed by hardy hills such as Djouce and Luggala.

Details: Exit the N11 at Kilmacanogue, taking the R755 towards Roundwood and turning off onto the R759 to Kippure. The 18km (11 miles) stretch takes about 30 minutes.

The pit-stop

After several days driving Ireland's motorways, I can safely say that the service stops are appalling. In fact, they don't exist. What must continental visitors think, having to leave our major inter-urban routes and drive several miles for as much as a loo break?

On the M/N11, I pull into the Applegreen forecourt at Ferns. The shop is clean, fitted with details you wouldn't expect (wooden floorboards, soft lighting) and stocked with fresh fruit, reasonable coffee and quality snacks such as Tyrrell's crisps. The fuel is relatively cheap too.

Alas, in what is becoming a theme of this series, the toilets are a disappointment. The gents are marred by marker scrawls on the hand dryer and vending machine. Bits of tissue are tossed about and the windows are barred -- hardly conducive to freshening up.

Details: Applegreen (053 936 6987; applegreen.ie) is on Main St, Ferns, Co Wexford.

The bypassed town

Enniscorthy will be bypassed by 2013, but don't wait that long to pay a visit.

Slipping off the M/N11 by the River Slaney, I find gems such as Pugin's Cathedral (with Holy Communion artwork stuck to its columns), the squat Norman Castle (sadly closed) and, of course, Vinegar Hill, where the decisive battle of the 1798 Rebellion was fought.

"You're always going up or down a hill in Enniscorthy," says Maura Flannery, popping out of Siopa Ceird, her old-time knitwear and souvenir shop on Castle Hill, to say hello.

Details: Enniscorthy lies along the M/N11 in Co Wexford.

The shopping break

Mount Usher Gardens open at 10.30am. By the time I arrive at 10.40am the car park is already filling up with a mix of tourists, glamorous buggy-pushers and Wicklow day-trippers.

The shopping courtyard has a greenhouse shop (a pot of "cut and come again" lettuce catches my eye at €11.95), Strawbridge (currently offering 40pc off its country-style furniture), and food and kitchenware stores. I grab a coffee and sit on a lawn. You could easily spend an hour here before getting to the Robinsonian gardens themselves.

Details: Exit the M/N11 at Rathnew, driving 2.5km (1.5 miles) towards Ashford. The courtyard at Mount Usher (0404 40205; mountusher gardens.ie) opens from 10am.

The en route activity

One quick detour off the M11 and I'm strapped into a helmet and harness, steeling myself before stepping onto an adventure ropes course some 50ft in the air. It's Xtreme Adventure, a brand new aerial trekking course at Gravity Forest Park in Courtown, Co Wexford, and the mere sight of it has my mouth dry with nerves.

Courtown is a seaside resort with a kiss-me-quick image. But here I am negotiating rolling logs, wobbly tightropes and spiders' webs in mid-air.

It jerks me right out of my comfort zone, and it's fantastic fun. I finish up with a 42ft fan-assisted jump (my heart follows about two seconds behind). If you're looking for adrenaline off the M11, here's where to find it.

Details: Exit the M/N11 at Gorey, following the R742 for 5km (3 miles) to Courtown. Multi-tickets for Xtreme Adventure (053 942 4849; gravityforestpark.ie) cost €15.

The hidden gem

"There is not in the wide world a valley so sweet," as Thomas Moore wrote in Meeting of the Waters, describing the point at which the Avoca River forms.

There are plenty of little beauty spots in the Vale of Avoca, chief among them the old copper-mining village of Avoca itself (where John Carney's movie, Zonad, was recently filmed).

What I like best of all, though, is simply driving through the valley, with spurts of blackthorn breaking up the greenery, and trees meeting overhead to make tunnels out of the thin roads.

Details: Exit the M/N11 at Arklow, taking the R747 towards Avoca. The 11km (7 mile) journey should take about 20 minutes.

The overnight suggestion

You know a hotel is going to be interesting when its owner shows you a leather-bound guestbook begun in 1895, and to which Steven Spielberg has added the most recent entry. But then I had the feeling Hunter's Hotel was going to be interesting the moment I stepped off the Old Dublin Road, and was swallowed up by the coaching inn dating from 1690.

Prepare to join regulars including Maeve Binchy and Seamus Heaney. Its olde-worlde charm won't be for everyone, but Hunter's is nothing if not authentic, and its Victorian gardens are a delight. Richard Gelletlie's hotel should be in a Museum of Hospitality, and I mean that in the best possible way.

Details: Exit the M11 at Rathnew, following the R761 for 2km (1.2 miles) to Hunter's Hotel (0404 40106; hunters.ie). B&B starts at €95pp.

Irish Independent

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